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Responding to liberal scholarship on Behemoth

Wikimedia Commons- Unaltered image by ABelov2014 (CC BY-SA 3.0)behemoth-2
Figure 1. Brachytrachelopan—the behemoth?


Published: 4 August 2020 (GMT+10)

As it will be well known to the majority of regular readers at creation.com, the traditional biblical creationist viewpoint regarding the Behemoth of Job 40 is that it likely represents a very early reference to a living dinosaur, post-Flood. And while the positive case has been made convincingly, essentially none of the creationist literature up to this point has addressed the more recent liberal scholarship on this question.

Unfortunately, if you consult the internet about pretty much anything in the Bible, and especially if you frequent skeptics’ forums, you’re likely to get bombarded with liberal critical views. While the article linked above does a great job making a case for a sauropod identification, it does not address a newer idea coming from liberal scholarship: that Behemoth was a mythical super-bull! I have been directed multiple times by various skeptics online to a particular YouTube video by Ben Stanhope, who has a bachelor’s degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an M.A. in Manuscript Cultures from Hamburg University.1 In this video, Stanhope cites several scholarly sources in his attempt to make the case that the Behemoth refers to the mythical masculine “super-bull” that hearkens to Babylonian mythology and ancient Jewish apocryphal writings. This same conclusion is also reached by old earther and online Christian apologist Robert Rowe.2

The claim is that the Hebrew terms for “tail” and “thighs” used in the text of Job 40:17 are both used metaphorically and euphemistically to refer to the male anatomy—the penis and testes of the bull.

Behemoth word etymology

Stanhope cites B. F. Batto, whose entry on Behemoth is as follows:

“[Behemoth] is the intensive (feminine) plural of behema (‘beast, ox’; collective: ‘beasts, cattle’ … ); nevertheless, in Job 40:15-24 the grammatical forms pertaining to Behemoth are all masculine singular. The figure suggested is a singular being of awesome dimensions, a ‘super ox’ of mythic proportions and possessing supernatural characteristics, hence the ‘Beast’ par excellence.”3

The first thing to note is that this interpretation abandons any pretense of respect for biblical inerrancy. The context clearly indicates that God is describing something real that He created, just as he described many other real-world animals in the prior chapters just before this. However, this is a very weak argument on its own merits. As any student of linguistics can tell you, the etymology of a word, even if it can be firmly established, does not necessarily tell us the meaning of the word. For example, the English word “deer” is derived from the German word “tier”, which means simply “animal”. But the English word deer does not mean “animal”; it’s a specific type of animal. Words change over time! Therefore, simply showing that the Hebrew word Behemoth may be related to another word for cattle does not prove that the word Behemoth itself denotes cattle of any kind. Indeed, as commentators including Batto have already noted, the description given doesn’t match that of any real cattle. On top of that, God had just mentioned cattle (an ox) in 39:9, making this redundant if it refers to cattle.

No long neck mentioned (but no horns, either)

Stanhope further attacks the sauropod theory on the grounds that brachiosaurs have extremely long necks, and the passage doesn’t mention any long neck. This is a reasonable point, since God is describing all the most noteworthy and impressive aspects of Behemoth in this context. However, this is not a foolproof argument since 1) it depends on an assumption about what God would have decided is most noteworthy about Behemoth and 2) not all sauropods had long necks to begin with. Stanhope creates a strawman by assuming the identification of ‘brachiosaur’, while actual creationist writers such as Steel have said simply, “some type of extinct dinosaur.”

Brachytrachelopan (Figure 1), for example, was a sauropod dinosaur with powerful thighs and a large, long tail, but he was missing the long neck seen in other sauropods. I’m not saying this passage necessarily must be referring to Brachytrachelopan; I am merely raising this example to show that God could have been referring to some large sauropod dinosaur even if He did not mention a long neck. Keep in mind also that all of our reconstructions of extinct animals are based on a certain level of assumption-making and represent historical science, not operational science.

This sword also cuts both ways. What is the most noteworthy feature of bulls? Yes, that’s right, the horns. If this is supposed to be a mythical super bull or super ox, why are no horns mentioned? That seems very odd to put it mildly.

The tail and thighs

Here is the linchpin of their argument. Several in the academic community have suggested that these words “tail” and “thighs” are being used euphemistically and metaphorically to refer to male organs.

Writers such as David Bernat (one of Stanhope’s sources cited in his video), appeal to much later extra-biblical literature to justify their metaphorical reading. They also add heaping portions of their own speculations.

“In fact, the description, if not marked in v. 15 as referring to Behemoth, could be applied to a human body. [The Hebrew descriptive terms for body parts used here] are all words used in Biblical Hebrew to denote human physiognomy … Though mention of a [zanab] (‘tail’) in the description of a man, might give a reader pause, the body part could easily be construed as an erect penis, proud as the beams that buttressed Solomon’s Temple.”4 [emphasis added]

This seems like an extremely odd rabbit trail that Bernat has gone down. Why attempt to compare the descriptions of Behemoth to a man in the first place? This is clearly intended to describe a beast, not a man, so why force the body terms to be representative of human anatomy? Notice Bernat’s speculative language: “could easily be construed… ” Sure, lots of things are easy, but that doesn’t make them right. Why not simply take it as written? Bernat never seems to get around to answering that basic question.

Further justification for understanding this ‘tail’ reference as a euphemism is given by appealing to the second part of the parallel couplet, the description of ‘thighs’. Bernat points out that this Hebrew term, ‘pachad’, has sometimes been translated ‘testicles’, including in the Latin Vulgate. Few modern Bible translators choose to render it thus, but Bernat doesn’t address that, or give us any particular reason why this could not simply mean ‘thigh’ as it literally states. Instead, he continues with the speculative language:

“ … the verse structured around Behemoth’s [zanab] and [pachad] could plausibly be interpreted as trumpeting its subject’s virility, rather than merely describing the animal’s tail and thigh.”

Is this plausible? Perhaps, but why should anybody care what is merely plausible? Bernat never bothers to explain anything about the context of this passage that would lead a reader to prefer his metaphorical reading over a straightforward literal one. To my eyes, it seems very much out of place and out of keeping with the rest of the context of the surrounding chapters. Bernat refers to medieval scholars such as Rashi to buttress his view, but let’s remember we’re talking about the putative oldest book of the Bible here. This could possibly be the oldest surviving work of literature in the world, period. Appealing to what somebody wrote in the middle ages, or even to extrabiblical Jewish literature from the first few centuries AD, misses the mark by several centuries at the very least. As Ron Neller wrote in the Journal of Creation several years ago, “most experts propose a date for the Book of Job no later than the 4th century BC, and most likely much earlier, possibly pre-Mosaic.”5

It should go without saying that we should tread lightly when claiming to understand supposed figures of speech, especially those not clearly indicated in the text, based on outside literature that postdates the text by centuries or more. Languages and cultures can change quite a bit in that amount of time!

Another of Stanhope’s references, Scott Jones, is equally vague and speculative on this subject. He writes in a footnote, “The word [zanab] (lit., “tail”) seems to be a euphemism for a penis, and it is used as such in Postbiblical Hebrew as well … ”6 Perhaps I am just missing something obvious, but in what way does this reference to the creature’s tail seem to be a euphemism? I can think of nothing in the text that would suggest that, or that would disallow a simple literal reading of this verse, other than the ‘difficulty’ that no living animals have tails that could in any reasonable way be compared to cedar trees!

In this way, the unspoken reasoning of these scholars may be uncovered. All these scholars likely accept an evolutionary worldview, as do the majority in the secular academic world, and would thus be unwilling to consider that this most ancient piece of literature might include a description of a living dinosaur. Could this evolutionary bias be driving their unwillingness to read this in a straightforward manner, subconsciously or otherwise? I think so.

As one reads their rather Walton-like appeals to later extrabiblical sources, it can scarcely be missed that the tendency among academics to want to read the Bible through the lens of pagan literature is very much in-vogue.

When looking at all the evidence, the case these scholars are putting forward is clearly weak. While this euphemistic reading is apparently possible, and these terms have allegedly been used in that way in other places and at other times, none of these writers have taken the all-important step of justifying why one should adopt that reading here, in Job 40. The text reads just fine if you take it to mean simply ‘tail’ and ‘thighs’, and in fact this fits much better with the tone of the rest of the book. Respected Hebrew scholars such as Kaddari seem to take this as a literal description, and even reject the identification of it as a hippopotamus on account of the small size of the hippo’s tail.7 The suggestion that this is a reference to a pagan mythological ‘super-bull’ certainly doesn’t do justice to the text, but the suggestion does have all the hallmarks of liberal eisegesis.

Indeed, much as we do when defending the literal reading of ‘yom’ in Genesis 1, we could simply respond by asking the question: “If God had intended to refer to the literal tail and thighs of Behemoth in Job 40:17, how could He have been any clearer?” Ironically, Bernat himself writes,

“… the Leviathan and Behemoth poems evoke a strong emotional reaction. Rather than passion and delight, the desired effect is shock and awe. Leviathan, according to [Job] 41.17, even strikes fear among gods who bear witness to him. Within the narrative context, the descriptions are meant to amaze and frighten Job with the overwhelming might of the creatures, thereby reducing him to silence.”4

But wouldn’t God’s description of a huge tail, compared to the largest trees the locals in the near east would have known (the cedars of Lebanon), and powerful muscular thighs, serve the purpose of reducing Job to awestruck silence much better than an arguably lewd reference to male anatomy?

References and notes

  1. Stanhope, B. (“Ben S”), Why Behemoth isn’t a Dinosaur, youtube.com/watch?v=AxGARM5cYKY, accessed 23 April 2020. Return to text.
  2. Rowe, R., Behemoth In Job: A Bull, Not A Dinosaur, sentinelapologetics.org, 17 November 2017. Return to text.
  3. Batto, B.F., “Behemoth”, in: van der Toorn, K., Becking, B., and van der Horst, P.W., eds., Dictionary of Deities and Demons, p. 165, Brill, Leiden, 1999; as quoted in Ref. 1. Return to text.
  4. Bernat, D., Biblical Wasfs beyond Song of Songs, JSOT 28:327-49, 2004. doi.org/10.1177%2F030908920402800305 Return to text.
  5. Neller, R., Do you know the laws of the heavens?—the Bible and the hydrologic cycle, Journal of Creation 28(3):61–66, December 2014. Return to text.
  6. Jones, S., Corporeal Discourse in the Book of Job, Journal of Biblical Literature 132(4): 845-863, 2013. Return to text.
  7. Kaddari, M., A Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew [in Hebrew], entry בהמות, page 89, cited at balashon.com, “Behemoth and behema”, accessed 19 May 2020. Author provided citation via personal email correspondence. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Jeremy A.
Yes someone many years ago said it was a poem, when I wrote on this. And the animal was an rhino as large as a cedar tree and was mythical. But the description describes the powerful muscles in its tail, and huge bones like bars of iron. That is a perfect description of a sauropod dinosaur. And the Diplodocus/Ultrasaurus is the greatest beast God created which is what it is describing. Job 40:16 "Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly." This they said means it was a mammal, with a belly button. This is ridiculous. It describes the muscles in its thighs.
Paul Price
That word 'navel' there seems to be an artifact of the original King James translation. Most modern bibles read "muscles" there, and the Strong's for this Hebrew word 'sharir' says only "sinew, muscle" and doesn't mention anything about navel or belly button!
William M.
After years of translating the Bible into another language and reading thousands of pages of real scholarship it still amazes me how the term "liberal scholarship" is still applied as if it were a worthy of the label. Liberal I understand but scholarship? The Bible says "Jesus walked on the water". So some Ph of D comes along and says that is not a possible, publishes the opinion and it is automatically "scholarship. Give me a break! It is time we start labeling a lot of liberal scholarship for what it really is.
David C.
A mythological beast from the biblical Book of Job, apparently a form of the primeval chaos-monster defeated by God at the beginning of creation and men are still arguing over its existence. It’s now a high testosterone, virtual lump of 700+ word editorial beefed up to hurl back at the other side. It was a hippopotamus. Dinos didn’t and couldn’t.
Louie H.
These skeptics are so incredibly desperate to deny that behemoth could be a dinosaur that they stoop SO LOW as to accuse God of boasting to Job of the genital size of a mythical "super bull". Seriously? Why would God EVER speak to Job about the genitals of some pagan idol? This seems to me to be outright blasphemy. No one speaking by the Spirit of God would dare accuse Him of such a disgusting and profane thing. Rather, these are the words of men who would rather speak evil of God than admit to the innerancy and truth of scripture. Thank you CMI for standing against these ridiculous attacks on God's Word with reason and logic, God bless you all.
Seathrún M.
I would like to know the source for Kaddari's opinion. Is he the world-famous rabbi, Yitzhaq Kaddari, who died in Israel in January 2006 at a very advanced age - thought to have been 108 years old? If so, can you refer me to the article on his website? Or was it published elsewhere? (I can read both Biblical and Modern Hebrew - although I cannot yet speak much of the latter!) Many thanks - or should I say "toda rabba!"?
Paul Price
No, this would be Menahem Kaddari, author of "A Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew"; citation provided by a third party through email correspondence (see footnote).
Being a physicist myself, I can assure you science is fallible...God is not. What God has said is spiritually discerned....science can not deal with spiritual matters at all. Man's knowledge and logic is gravely limited...God's is not. God's revealed word is for our edification to understand who He is, what He has done, what He will do, and what He requires of man. He does not require that Man define Him. I see nowhere in God's word where He has anything but disdain for the skeptic and unbeliever. Unless a person has been spiritually enlightened by God, they will never truly believe. Jesus called it being born again in John 3 which science does not understand at all. Jesus also told us in John 14 and 16 that it is the Holy Spirit that enlightens us. Science can't deal with that either. Since the Holy Spirit inspired all of Scripture we have no basis at all to question any of it. To do so is to question God's purpose in giving us His word. It wasn't so that thousands of years later man would finally be smart enough to judge or correct it. Saving faith is all about trust and belief in Jesus Christ and His finished work. Science has no way to handle any of that at all. It is the Devil's deceptions that guide the skeptic and unbeliever...not God. Unless God intervenes in the heart of man He will never believe (John 6:44,65). We do not know in whom or when that may occur. It is good to consider all things of God, but science and logic aren't what converts a man...it is the work of the Spirit in them. Perhaps He will use the cracks in science's understanding to alert them, but it will be one person at a time as He wills (John 3). To the true believer it is simply and literally what God has said that matters...all else is speculation. Let God define science. He controls it.
Paul R.
Yet another reason why God couldn't have been referencing Behemoth as an ox is because Behemoth is referenced in comparison to an ox: "“Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox." The word translated "ox" being "baqar" which refers to oxen, cattle, or any bovine animal or collection of bovine animals. No one who wishes to accurately describe an animal uses the animal they're describing as a descriptor: "Look at the eagle, ...which feeds on fish like an eagle." Or even assuming that the name "behemoth" is a more descriptive form of an ox; simply going up a taxonomical level doesn't improve the description. "Look at the Kodiak...which feeds on berries like a bear." Yes, because it is a bear. There is is no additional helpful information added by using such a description.

The same sort of people that propose that something being described as like something means it is something also open up the possibility that God is a woman, because God has described himself as like a mother in some aspects. When one violates rules of grammar and interpretation, all sorts of falsehoods become possible. Straying from plain meaning helps no one and hurts many.
Allan M.
I appreciate Creation Ministries for refuting the skeptical evolutionists whatever brand they may be of.
Sadly many " Christian Scholars so called" are like the sons of Eli, & show a brazen disrespect for the word & for God Himself. Obviously, they are wiser. As Jesus said to the Scribes & Pharisees
"Luke 11:42; But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone."... these critics love to parse & dissect the bible looking for some perceived error, so they can cry..J'Accuse…!
Dan M.
I don't have any extra letters after my name but I do consider myself to be an intelligent, well-read person. And just because some of you do have extra letters, don't expect me to swallow some ridiculous idea based on bias and prejudiced interpretations. Clearly God is explaining a creature he made along with mankind. The chief way of God's land-dwelling animals unless the story takes place in the middle of the ocean and it's a blue whale, but they don't eat grass like an ox? Clearly, as Malcolm Muggeridge stated, these people have educated themselves into imbecility to the point they can not see the forest for the trees, or more accurate, they don't want to? How can someone call themselves a theologian and not acknowledge a single thing God said in scripture? They are always trying to explain it away in man's terms, (unbelief) when the creation is clearly miraculous. It's like abiogenesis? Secularists expect me to swallow their story of the beginning of all life, (evolution) but abiogenesis is scientifically impossible, period! They say, "I have a Ph.D. all puffed up and proud and I'm supposed to belive what they say without question! Well sorry, secularists. I'm not buying, what you're shoveling. God says man is a fallen, deceitful creature and if anything is true, this is. Most of what I read in the secular world is lie after lie! They are blind guides of the blind who fell into the pit of unbelief. Shared genetics programming, dinosaur soft tissue, the fossil record, the catastrophic hydraulic nature of geology, just to name a few areas of scientific investigation that the bible explains all too well! It is so obvious a person has to be a willing fool to miss it, but I'm called the fool? Well, we shall see, soon I think? come, Lord, and shut their mouths!
Stephen G.
"Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind".
Michael B.
I listened to a Sunday school teacher refer to these as mythical creatures.
I don't think these people consider the accusation they are laying at the feet of our Creator when they make these statements.
In this section of Job God has been declaring His Glory and awesome nature as a creator by referencing real things that Job knows all about and then to suddenly have God trying to show His Glory by things that never existed is to make Him a liar; or if they did exist at some other point and place in eternity Job would have no knowledge of these for understanding by which to be in awe which diminishes God's Glory.
In either case their unbelief does what unbelief always does, it damages both God's character and the faith of others.
Thank you for your faithful ministry to the Truth of Scripture.
Your Brother in Christ,
Curt C.
About the neck, some points I've found trying to "test everything" (1 Thess. 5:21):

1) God also mentions the ostrich earlier, and no mention of the long neck (39:13-18).

2) Maned horse necks ARE mentioned in the very next verse (39:19) so the author had a word for neck if there was really some rule it had to be mentioned if long (as if God's going out of his way to imply there isn't)

3) The Behemoth & Leviathan section is introduced as a challenge that if Job's so great, he should bring the proud "low" (40:12).

4) 40:19a's "first of the works of God" would thus seem to mean it has to be the "highest" land animal ever created, implying a long neck.

5) 19b implies Job couldn't reach the head or even neck with a sword. With Leviathan the point seems to be the neck could be reached (fitting sarcosuchus imperator) but Job would still fail due to the scales and might.

6) Leviathan's scales imply Behemoth also had scales to be the worst-case scenario for Job (giraffe wouldn't fit).

7) The eating grass atop hills wording may imply the rest of the creature is standing next to the hill (40:20); otherwise it's so unimpressive why mention it?

8) The book is filled with poetic "riddle-like" challenges and descriptions (Elihu's depiction of the approaching storm just before God speaks for example), evoking Proverbs 1:2-6 "riddles of the wise." The one being challenged has to prove he can get the meanings and keep up when it's his turn. To just say "oh and it has a long neck" directly would be bizarre.

9) Finally, Elihu's storm imagery plus 38:1 highlights that they were using examples in Job's sight, and God likely matched that approach, so Job was probably looking right at a sauropod (probably by a river) and hardly needed told why it was so lofty.
David G.
When detractors 'read' the scriptures through a pagan lens, I have to wonder, following C. S. Lewis, if they have read any pagan myths or contemplated the world view and 'life-world' that they contemplate.
Even a quick read of Enuma Elish, for example, will show a world view that is far distant from the orderly, causally rational and structured categories of Genesis 1, nor do they portray a world created for the convivial and 'commutative' relationship between creator and 'creature-in-his-image', and they certainly don't show a world where the creator is an active agent in the very same world that the creature occupies, and in the terms of the creature's experience of both the creation and the creator.
Yvonne R.
AS with all evolutionists, this is another attempt to deny GOD and who HE is as THE CREATOR. Lord of all on the earth. I enjoy and appreciate the works of GOD. The way Job proclaims the constellations, the description of the Behemoth, Leviathan, the description of the reforming of the earth during the flood of Noah's time. People post flood have observed these animal creations of GOD, in England and other places and an understanding of the great flood can be understood by the eruption of Mount St Helens in Washington State, in the hour by hour creation of great walls of lava and the reforming of the land which mankind can give witness to the before and after.as recent as 1980's. Mankind has no excuse. I am intrigued to consider that Noah and his family related to ongoing generations the before and after of the effects of the great flood. The HOLY SPIRIT of our loving GOD decries the abuse and the unwillingness to accept the truth as related by spirit filled authors of the word related by GOD's HOLY SPIRIT. I am enthralled to be informed of how leaves being so filled with water that when the mud from the great flood covered them, the leaves kept the shape and so were fossilized otherwise the leaves would have crumpled. Being associated with CMI in 1985 has opened these doors of understanding. Thirty five years gives credence to wanting to know more and more, regarding the understanding of who GOD is by HIS creation. I am so thankful to GOD for HIS saving grace for me. Evolution is a nothing experience - a denial of who GOD is as our Saviour.
Geoff C. W.
Like a cedar? I'd like to see that!... But I'm not sure that Mrs Behemoth would! :)
Jim M.
Excellent article and very helpful. One question I have always had with this passage concerns v. 21:

"Under the lotus plants he lies, in the shelter of the reeds and in the marsh.
22 For his shade the lotus trees cover him; the willows of the brook surround him."

What is a lotus plant? V. 22 speaks of lotus trees? Can an animal that large fit under a lotus plant? Tree sounds better. It's just confusing to me.
Paul Price
I don't think the precise biological classification of the plant mentioned there is really known. The same Hebrew word tseelim is used in both verses.

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